In 2019, I wrote this https://allencompasscouk.wordpress.com/2019/08/11/future-of-catholic-schools/ in an effort to stake out a vision for Catholic state schools in the modern era. Now, after all the disruption of the past couple of years, it seems a good time to revisit this, adding some practical examples to elaborate on some of its themes. It should be said at the outset that this is a vision which is specific to primary education, including those first 1000 days of a child’s life. Context is key too, as our school is located in the 10th most deprived ward of England.
I am not trying to provide a model, at least not yet, as our school is still developing; much of its work is still in its infancy. Nor am I trying to show off, or portray what we do as outstanding practice. This is more about showing how vision and values can be realised in practice, staying loyal to the principles of Catholic Social Teaching. I hope it’s useful, not simply to the Catholic sector, but also to the wider school system as we grapple with this question…
What is the purpose of a school in the fast-changing times we live in?
All Encompass: Context.
One evening in 2017, several colleagues at our school, All Saints Catholic Primary School in Anfield, came together at my family home. Over sangria and tapas, I asked them to try and define our school vision, in particular our growing focus on community. The resulting discussion led to the phrase ‘All Encompass’ which provided the title to our curriculum that we published the following year. Much of the writing on my blog – http://www.baldheadteacher.com from this point up onwards, provides riffs on this theme. Essentially, I was trying to interpret Catholic Social Teaching for our local area, probably quite crudely. A book edited by Paul Vallely was a big influence.
However, I would be the first to admit that its practical application in 2018 and 2019 was a bit hit and miss. Some brilliant stuff, but not consistent or inter-linked. Some of this was out of our hands – a cavalcade of pregnancies meant all sorts of temporary staffing solutions. Or it was structural, as we hadn’t yet solved the conundrum of housing the Children’s Centre, the mainstream school, and the special educational needs unit, in an effective way.
In 2020, the pandemic hit and, whilst this was disconcerting and stressful, it did give us the chance to deal with some of these structural, strategic issues. The revised Ofsted framework – despite my reservations over what appears to be a remedy for secondary education that was bizarrely applied to perfectly good primary schools – did make us review our curriculum again, and, in my view, it is significantly improved as a result.
If anything, what we are trying to do is more ‘All Encompassing’ than before.
So forgive me if I talk about things that you do in your school – I’m sure there will be plenty of synergy, as primary schools tend to be brilliant partners to their communities. I am not setting out a model, nor seeking to compare the school with anyone or anywhere. Instead, it’s a contribution to a debate.
In the 2019 blog, I referenced three areas that were at the heart of great Catholic schools.
- Firstly, a specific ethos that celebrates the uniqueness of each child, and places true inclusion at the heart of its work.
- Secondly, ensuring the school is an active player in its local community, reaching out over walls to make a difference beyond the classroom. What Pope Francis has called ‘a culture of encounter.’
- Thirdly, designing a curriculum that is flavoured with what Thomas Aquinas called ‘truth, beauty and goodness,’ forming young people who can go on to contribute to society and lead a good and happy life.
All three must be flavoured with a degree of radicalism. Too many leaders, not just in education, but in every walk of life, are burying their heads in the sand. We are living through an era of monumental change; schools must adapt and change radically. There is no better ‘voice in the wilderness’ at the moment than Pope Francis, who speaks urgently and emotionally about the need to change. His book, Let Us Dream infuses my narrative below.
So, at the risk of seeming hubristic, here are some practical stories within these three areas, and I hope they may provide some food for thought.
Theme 1: ETHOS AND INCLUSION.
Richard is about to begin Year 4. He is working below age-related expectations but can access the national curriculum programmes of study, he can read, and he enjoys his learning. When Richard was in Reception, he was not going to school. The leaders at his school of choice told the local authority in no uncertain terms that they could not meet his needs. As a result, he was awaiting an in-year transfer whilst sitting at home. With an education and health care plan, the authority approached us on the basis that we had a unit for pupils with severe learning difficulties. Richard started with us by the end of Reception and has never looked back.
There are so many examples of current pupils at All Saints who bear this watermark, and the vast majority are doing very well. Our school now has 158 pupils with special educational needs, one-third of the pupil population. Of these, 59 have education and health care plans. I learned recently that there is now a term for schools such as ours – a ‘magnet school’. It receives this label because it attracts pupils for the local area with SEND, mostly on the basis of recommendations to parents. I prefer the term ‘hybrid’, as we are neither a traditional primary school, not a substantive special school. We’re a wonderful mixture of both.
Daniel is about to start Year 5. His sister Ava is about to start Year 3. They have moved to us because their brother is in the unit I refer to in the previous paragraph. Now called the Enhanced Provision, it provides a home for children with profound and severe learning difficulties. Most of these pupils are non-verbal. Affectionately known as the Hive, it is already at capacity (36 pupils) and the local authority have asked whether we could double the number, such is the demand across the city. Daniel and Ava’s parents have already seen just how the ethos of inclusion infuses the school, and they want the family together, at Daniel’s school. How often does this happen, that the mainstream pupils follow their highly autistic brother to his school!
Just before we broke up, I learnt of something which left me quite tearful. Daniel’s mother has organised for the parents of the ‘Hive’ pupils to meet up each week in a local community centre during the summer holiday. Their children can play with each other and the parents can share experiences and worries. Don’t forget that these children have never had friends before, had barely attended schools, and have been largely excluded from society since birth, this all compounded by the pandemic lockdowns. This parent support group has grown out of regular support sessions organised by a senior teacher.
This goes to the heart of the ethos at the school. Working alongside local government, not in isolation. Being bold enough to take the inevitable hit on ‘standards’ by prioritising places for some of the most vulnerable children in the city. Working directly and in partnership with parents to transform lives.
We don’t have any inclusion badges (or not yet anyway) because we are not doing it for that. Nor are we doing it for Ofsted. We do it because it is at the heart of our mission, echoing that section of Catholic Social Teaching which talks of a ‘preferential option for the poor’. Here, the definition of ‘poor’ does not equate to penury or destitution, though this may be true in the occasional case. Instead, it is about poverty of access, lack of opportunity, lack of provision, a deficiency of hope. If we don’t do it, who will? I will keep coming back to this. If Catholic schools don’t act, then who will, such is the paucity of support services now in many communities.
Anthony has just left us, a highly autistic boy whose behaviour became worse during Year 6 as the hormones kicked in. He is fortunate to have a wonderful family, and I know he’ll be just fine, despite major concerns about secondary education. I mention him because this year I found myself engaged in an interview with his ventriloquist dummy, Steve the Sock. It’s on YouTube is you want to see it. This is another core part of the ethos, to search for the individual uniqueness in all, and celebrate and cherish it. Rather than begin with a deficit position – something is wrong that needs fixing – let us revel in their unique and wonderful difference. God made us different, but equally important. I love this quote, from my late Uncle John, a celebrated writer. In one of his columns, he reminisces fondly on his own Jesuit school.
‘Duffers in the classroom, plough-horses on the rugger field, could still make their mark when known to play the bagpipes, collect black beetles or eat three dinners.’
There is a bit of rose-tinted spectacles in this, but you get the point. Why should a child who is a ‘greater-depth’ reader be lauded higher than Anthony, who is a brilliant puppeteer? Of course we want equality of opportunity, but schools like ours actively encourage difference of outcome, within the framework of a pupil profile. I think this is specifically Catholic.
Talk to anyone in education and they will tell you that the number of children with special educational needs is shooting upwards, and it is doing this faster with every month that passes.
If a Catholic primary school is not going to place itself at the heart of this demand, then what is? I would argue that this is our interpretation of the ‘universal declaration of goods’. All our pupils, even the most complex, receive the beauty of the In Harmony music programme, or sports coaching from the Liverpool FC Foundation. These same pupils are put front and centre of all we do, captured neatly in a concept called ‘reverse inclusion’. At its simplest, reverse inclusion allows those pupils with severe needs to remain in their comforting, familiar environment whilst mainstream pupils join them.
For examples, each lunchtime, pupils in Year 6 join the ‘Hive’ pupils during their lunch hour. They play, talk and sing together. It’s beautiful to see. It is not for all pupils and, as such, it is voluntary. We want to expand this next year in areas of the curriculum where appropriate.
Alongside this, pupils visit St Vincent’s School for the Visually Impaired each week and collaborate on art, environmental and sporting projects. Our pupils make friends with the blind children and work alongside them in a safe, familiar environment.
I shouted for joy when I read the paper by Tom Rees and Ben Newmark entitled ‘A Good Life’ that was published last month. For me, it confirmed that we were on the right track, and I just hope more voices can cut through. In the paper, they echo my point above regarding differences in outcomes. They argue that a broad view of success shows…
‘the importance of recognising a broad range of success measures when working with children with learning disabilities rather than assuming that success looks the same for every child.’
True inclusion goes further than policies and kitemarks, and I’d like to think that Catholic schools like ours can provide a template as to how it can be done, to the benefit of all within the school community.
Talking of which…
THEME 2. COMMUNITY
During the Year 6 leavers’ assembly last month, the prizes were given out by Kevin, founder of the local charity An Hour For Others. Kevin epitomises the kind of grassroots leadership that is so necessary in traditional working-class areas such as those in inner-city Liverpool. He visited earlier in the year to deliver a young leadership course to all the Year 6 pupils, full of inspiration and hope.
This leadership course goes alongside a range of other community projects to which the pupils are connected. In Kensington, pupils work alongside adults with learning disabilities at the L’Arche community, learning about growing plants and flowers. At Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, pupils learn how to be Junior Curators, and then run the museum tour for their parents. At St Vincent’s School for the Blind, they work with pupils with visual impairment on arts, environmental and sports projects each Wednesday. And working alongside the local GP practice, pupils prepare science booklets and posters to then talk to patients as they wait for their appointments.
We call the programme, ‘Learning to Serve’. It gives real-life application to the report of the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education in 1977 which stresses that ‘Knowledge is not to be considered as a means of material prosperity and success, but as a call to serve and to be responsible for others.’ Whilst being primarily designed for the pupils, it also reaps great benefits for staff and parents who often travel with the pupils as volunteers. Some still tell me of the journeys to Stonyhurst, amazed at what they learnt, though this is relegated somewhat by tales of buses breaking down, and fire alarms at 9pm.
As this develops, I would like to be more radical. Why shouldn’t parents and adults in the community attend Spanish lessons for example, alongside Year 6. Why can’t pupils give lessons to younger pupils – I write a bit about this in the third section.
In addition to the Learning to Serve programme, children are encouraged to start up their own community-based groups, curated by staff and supported by local people and businesses. Some are more traditional charitable ventures such as appeals and market-place stalls, working with radio stations, CAFOD and local press. Others have led to some remarkable outcomes, in one case all the way to the Royal Family.
In this example, pupils formed a group called the Eco-Emeralds, seeking to do something active for the benefit of the local environment. Because I, and other teachers, had good community contacts, we were able to get them talking to the right people. One thing led to another and before long they were fronting a national campaign called Backyard Nature. This came to the attention of Prince William and was featured in his ITV documentary, ‘A Planet for Us All.’
This group have all sorts of plans for next year, despite all the ‘Prince William’ pupils now having left the school.
Another group decided to adopt animals at Chester Zoo. This has led to teachers organising horse-riding sessions as a therapy for those pupils in the ‘Hive’. The pupils go with them as buddies. Here, inclusion, community and well-being come together in a joyous expression of shared learning. The next step is to set up a community interest company, set for next year.
The ’culture of encounter’ extends abroad. Year 6 pupils visited a partner school in Belgium on three occasions, sharing in the Flemish children’s adventure holiday in the Ardennes. The school’s community band performed in Seville alongside the Banda Municipal de Sevilla. And memorably, a group of sighted and blind teachers and pupils from Sierra Leone spent three weeks at the school in 2019 – this after nine years of partnership work there. What better expression of the common good than to see our teachers, in the middle of rural Africa, leading a staff training session in rudimentary phonics methodology.
However, perhaps the most consequential community action is formed through the Anfield Children’s Centre. At the height of austerity during the last decade, the Centre was due for closure, or a merger at best. Concerned about the impact this would have on the community, school governors and leaders decided to take on any liabilities itself, and keep it open. Using revenue from the thriving nursery provision, we have been able to retain staff and maintain the services, so crucial to the families in the community. With fourteen years of history, there are countless examples of families and children where nurturing, support and guidance has made considerable difference to those first 1000 days of the child’s life.
Surely, all future Catholic multi-academy trusts should have this at the heart of their prospectus. And there are the buildings available, as we have found out recently.
Before the pandemic, I had been badgering the Archdiocese about the chronic underuse of the Parish Centre. The centre was attended by a few football fans on match days or the occasional funeral wake. We were fast running out of space and this was an option I thought was in the best interests of everyone in the community. And then we went into lockdown. Out of crisis came opportunity. It provided the stimulus for us to take on the lease, for the Centre to be formally closed, and for us to decide on its usage.
Now, each day, the In Harmony programme is based there, pupils walking across the road with cellos, violins and double basses. The All Saints Scout Group meets there each Tuesday. The Children’s Centre has migrated some of its parent groups there. Assemblies and performances take place there.
Since March, we have brought together a diverse group of local residents, school staff, parishioners and businesses to draw up plans for how the building might be redeveloped. Each of us was clear though – it had to be a place of sanctuary, of harmony, of community.
If we looked at the Church’s estate in this way, then Children’s Centres need not be the sole preserve of the state. In the future, could churches themselves become family centres?
By knitting together the work of the Children’s Centre, the school nursery – open each day from 8 to 6 and for children as young as 2 – and the school safeguarding and SEND teams, the early intervention is extremely effective. The only drawback, if you can call it that, is that there is a greater caseload to manage as identification happens earlier; as we all know, the number of families in need has risen sharply at a time when statutory support services have been cut to the bone.
I mentioned the All Saints Scout Group earlier. Here is a beautiful example of how a community-based initiative links with national organisations to provide enriching opportunities for children. It increases intrinsic motivation and assists in providing a horizontal level of authority explained by Paul Verhaeghe in his book ‘Says Who?’
Let me explain.
Firstly, linking with national organisations. Too often, schools retreat into their buildings, at times treating the ‘world out there’ with a patronising tone, as if they actually do more damage to children than good. We miss out on lots of free, good quality provision for children, if we avoid making those initial links with such organisations. In this example, the Scouts organisation worked with the school to set up the group, over an extended period of time. Even now, they are there to support and welcome the group into the wider network, for example weekend camps.
Secondly, such initiatives increase the intrinsic motivation of staff and parents. Anthony is the leader; during the day he’s site supervisor. He is supported by teaching assistants, parents, midday supervisors, who all give up their time to help out. Communities can only thrive on discretionary effort like this. It is actively encouraged and expected at the school.
Finally, this concept of horizontal authority. If a school decides the sole authority rests within its gates, it has opted for vertical authority. We believe this is not enough. Instead, there has to be authority provided from a network of groups who together espouse the expectations and values of the school, or its culture. This is hugely important for children. The Scouts group shows how staff, parents and community volunteers can give children security, transparency and consistency.
We are all too familiar with the drop in behaviour when Year 5 are covered by a supply teacher on a Friday afternoon. It can be vertiginous. But, because of this heightened state of horizontal authority exercised by the whole community, that drop tends to be much shallower.
A shared community approach to the formation of children improves behaviour and attitudes. The age-old adage that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ is very Catholic, traditionally manifested through the parish. Maybe now, this can only be replicated through the school community.
By placing community at the heart of our work, I truly believe that we are showing fidelity to those core principles of Catholic Social Justice, particularly a commitment to the common good, and an option for the poor.
I started this section with Kevin and An Hour For Others so I’ll finish there. For their strapline is one that everyone can understand.
‘Together we are stronger.’
So now to the curriculum.
THEME 3: CURRICULUM
Molly-Jo is about to start Year 6 this year. In September, she’ll use her historical knowledge and her presentational skills to put her Junior Curator training into practice. She will lead her parents around the exhibition, educating them about the artefacts.
In December, she will go with her peers to an outdoor pursuits centre for a week’s physical training and outdoor education. In February, she will go to Italy with the Liverpool Ski Association for a week and learn to ski from scratch.
In March, Molly-Jo will perform as part of a Year 6 orchestra, conducted by the principal conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic. As an added twist, a song she composed with her friends will be part of the repertoire.
In April, Molly-Jo will travel to Seville and perform in a variety of locations across the city as part of a Year 6 ensemble. She plays the cello.
She will graduate from a partner organisation Into University, support the local doctors’ surgery, set up her own business in the summer term, perform on stage as part of the school’s musical and contribute to various liturgies during the year.
I know her quite well, and I’m fairly sure she’ll score well over 100 in her reading and mathematics tests next May.
I deliberately put this last as it’s something that I just take for granted. Far from it being the sole focus for the pupil, it is just one of many parts that make up a wider curriculum offer. For the richness of a Catholic curriculum is that it deals as much with formation as it does education. This is especially true for a primary school, where children’s capacity to learn, mirror and internalise is at its most potent at this young age.
For us, formation includes elements of the following, all of which are practically exemplified in Molly-Jo’s story above:-
- Focusing on God-given talents, finding them and allowing them to flourish
- Strengthening gospel values and attributes in all that we do
- Providing the foundations for future learning and flourishing
- Developing altruism and generosity of spirit and action
- Engaging with the world around us in a way that is positive and engaged
Framing curriculum planning and delivery within these aspirations is the starting point, taking the National Curriculum for granted. In actual fact, the National Curriculum is the bare minimum, though the teaching of reading is given the highest priority. And for the record, we teach phonics just fine.
I’d prefer to focus on the specifically Catholic element to the curriculum. Now, what follows is really important, as it can easily be traduced as being ‘woke’ nonsense. It is not. Instead, it is seeing the curriculum through the lens of Catholic Social Teaching.
Each term, teachers link together humanities, sciences and arts together by attaching a thread. This thread is an element of ‘knowledge and understanding of the world’ under the following headings.
- Identity and Diversity
- Power and Governance
- Social Justice
- Sustainable Development
- Globalisation and Interdependence
- Human Rights
- Peace and Conflict
Let’s be clear here. Such headings have been hijacked by a more secular, harrying, and at times quite hostile and divisive constituency. But this should not turn us away from them. For any reading of ‘Laudato Si’, or ‘Fratello Tutti, the recent encyclicals of Pope Francis, should make it abundantly clear that a Catholic education must place such themes at the very heart of our curriculum.
As a Catholic school, we are ideally placed to recapture such domains and place them into a balanced, optimistic and relevant foundation of knowledge and skills. I won’t go into detail here about planning and content, but this is available through our website. Even better, look at the brilliant work of Rob Carpenter and his colleagues at the Inspire Partnership. They are a few years ahead of us with respect to curriculum planning, and whilst they don’t have the Catholic foundation, it is very similar in its ethos and intent.
A curriculum should also be heading somewhere. For young children, we believe it is crucial for them to experience what we call ‘moments of collective joy’. Nowhere is the better expressed that through the school’s music curriculum, jointly delivered with the Liverpool Philharmonic in what is known as ‘In Harmony’.
This is a big undertaking and means that other subjects can’t be given quite the same degree of focus. In KS2, there are three lessons a week – one orchestral, one sectional and one musicianship. Pupils know that this is challenging work, but that their efforts lead to a performance each term.
However, the music side of this is only one element. The curriculum reinforces some very important learning characteristics that are vital for future flourishing:-
- The ability to be still and listen
- To self-regulate and show initiative
- How to work alongside others and play your part
- How to master a craft – in this case the playing of a string instrument
- That building up to a final performance takes hard work and determination.
By the time the pupils get to Years 5 and 6, these performances extend to the actual Philharmonic Hall, and the chance to perform to 1000 people.
What has this to do with being Catholic? Perhaps the words of Thomas Aquinas in his Trinitarian mission for education, those of ‘truth, beauty and goodness’ but also I think a sense that learning can be joyful, collaborative and enriching. Something deeply spiritual, that nourishes the soul.
In passing, it’s worth noting that a high proportion of those on stage will have special educational needs, though I suspect an observer would not notice, such is the integration.
Well, actually, let’s quote the words of one observer, none other than Baroness Estelle Morris, a previous Secretary of State for Education, who sat in on one lesson in May. She wrote to me afterwards, a beautiful letter in which she said,
‘I was very impressed with your pupils. They were attentive, focused, eager, and showed a confidence which was impressive for children of their age. There was a combination of rigour and creativity that is difficult to achieve and the children’s ambition and enjoyment was clear to see.’
This pleased me no end as it chimes with some of the vocabulary used in our Pupil Profile, essentially our measure of outcome (also on our website). As the educational consultant, Mary Myatt, likes to repeat, curriculum should be characterised by ‘low threat, and high challenge’. The In Harmony curriculum does exactly that.
Amanda has just left Year 6. She ticks all the boxes marked ‘challenging’ but she, in my opinion, made the very best of her abilities when with us, and starts secondary school with a good chance of succeeding in her education. I mention her because she came to me last year asking to take a presentation (incidentally about singing) to a class of younger pupils.
When I visited China a few years ago, I was absorbed by the legacy of an educationalist by the name of Tao Xing Zhi. Tao lived at the beginning of the last century and went, village by village, educating children and then asking them to go and educate their families. He called them ‘little teachers’.
So I asked Amanda to upgrade her presentation into a lesson and teach it to the class, assisted by her friends. They ended up doing a dozen.
This kind of approach characterises some lessons at school, in that the children naturally assist each other and act as ‘little teachers’. The quality of educational support staff is very high, as is their experience and pastoral support.
I think this is very Catholic, seeing learning as a shared pursuit, rather than an individual race to the top of the league table. Low threat, high challenge.
Primary schools are communities. Catholic primary schools are not just communities, but extended families. They are equally exercised by formation as they are by education.
By positioning itself as the natural destination for very young children with learning difficulties, the Catholic school is serving the neediest in our society. By reaching out over walls to lead a culture of encounter in its neighbourhood, it is enacting the common good and modelling it for generations. And by writing an ambitious curriculum that goes way beyond the national curriculum, a Catholic primary school prepares its pupils for the fast-changing world they will inhabit.
And that is that.
 The New Politics: Catholic Social Teaching for the 21st Century, edited by Paul Vallely.
 Pope Francis: Let is Dream
 Confederation of School Trusts; ‘A Good Life; towards greater dignity for people with learning disability’ (Tom Rees and Ben Newmark).
 ‘The Catholic School’: Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, 1977.
 Prince William: A Planet For Us All (ITV 2020)
 Says Who? The struggle for authority in a market-based society: Paul Verhaeghe 2015.
 Laudato Si’ – 2nd Encyclical of Pope Francis (2015)
 Fratelli Tutti – 3rd Encyclical of Pope Francis (2020)